The Testimony of Sarai bat Haran, Wife of Abram, Co-Founder of the People Israel
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
In the first place, Abram, my now-famous husband, never even thought to ask me if I was willing to set out on this massive journey from my home town, Ur of the Chaldees, the foremost City of our day—why, it was so big that people never called it Ur-Kasdim, they simply called it “The City,” that’s how well-known it was. Of course, back in our day, men ruled, no question; we women were expected to keep quiet, cook, clean, and have babies—though we did manage to have our own—well, I suppose you would call them spheres of influence; yes, that’s what we had, at least, among ourselves.
We did have a good marriage, despite his being much older than I. A love-match? No; we did not have such things back in the olden times. My mother, Penibaal, and my father, Haran, met with him for the initial “discussions”—negotiations, really—they had heard good report of him, through the Shepherd’s Guild. He was a wealthy shepherd, a good provider, with many flocks, rams, and ewe lambs. I had seen him, as a young girl, during the springtime Festival of the Sheepshearing; that was all. I had on a new dress, and there was so much food, and dancing, and music! From a distance, it was, that I saw him, laughing with his mates. I thought nothing of it, being so young myself, at the time.
But then, when I was sixteen, which was old to marry, in those days—well, my mother said, “Come with me,” and she and the neighbor ladies, whom I thought were terrifically old—perhaps in their late twenties, or even their early thirties!—they took me, virtually from playing with my rag dolls, to an upper chamber, and there, after bathing me and checking me out thoroughly—I tell you, it was like being Neighbor Nachum’s prize milch cow—they decked me out in a golden headdress, so heavy I could barely lift my head—
“This is right, and proper, for a dear, young, fresh Daughter of Inanna,” they all announced, in quiet, but solemn voices—for women were allowed only to whisper, while men were encouraged to shout, and stamp their feet, in order to be obeyed—My gods, how fierce our men were! Though we laughed at them, behind the walls of our tents—I say, they dressed me in a wedding-dress not my own, but that of the Women of the Village; indeed, it smelled like the sweat of all the women—young girls, really—who had ever worn it!
And before I knew it, I was being marched out, with candles, and pipers, bronze triangles and skin-drums, surrounded by my sister virgins in processional, brought before the Town Council and the Women’s Auxiliary for their formal approval and nods, and, finally, amid candlelight and torchlight, presented to My Lord Abram, who stood there with oiled beard and turban, arms akimbo, scimitar in his belt and ornamental bronze shield on his back, so tall, and muscled—I could tell, when my father laid our hands together, and my little girl’s hand brushed against his broad shepherd’s arm—as he stood there, his broad black beard bristling, starting to go grey at the edges—and I, a mere slip of a girl, all blonde and thin, but first starting to become a Woman—and the Village Wise Man standing there, invoking all the gods—Ishtar, and Marduk, and Tiamat, so that they should bless me, that I might bear a veritable legion of babies, to carry on our little tribe, long might it increase—and so, we were married. He bore me off to his tent in the desert, under the stars. Black goatskin, white cheeses to eat, and sweet spiced wine to drink, that night. Yes. Under the stars….
Only, no babies came. I wept. I ate bitter dudaim, the mandrake root, to make me fertile. I prayed to the Moon, Goddess of Changing Women’s Times. I consulted with shamans and soothsaying women, most of whom were charlatans, who bit down hard on the golden coin I would hand them before they would utter a word, the thieves! …And had my palm read, and cried and wept in the Great Temple in Ur-of-the-Chaldees before Inanna, Consort of Dumuzi, while holding the holy dagger and sword which the High Priestess of the Stork-Messenger gave me….
But the years passed, and I had servant-girls, who bore babies on my knees by the hands of the midwives, and I had the joy of being, at least, a foster mother…. Such, such were my passing joys. And I helped Abram with the baby calves, and lambs, and a puppy or kitten, here and there…. What was I to do? One cannot mourn forever.
So, My-Lord-Abram and I grew old together. I did not really feel myself growing old, so active was I in my counting-tent, with my serving-girls, and with the Business, keeping the ledger-scrolls with papyrus and quill. And, every Friday night, after Abram and I praised our household staff—Eliezer, our Chief Steward would tell us who was deserving of special accolades, and we would distribute coins, along with little personal gifts that we had made with our own hands—a tiny blanket for Anat’s new baby, or a wooden toy which Abram had carved for little Urubaal, the smith’s son.
So: except for my—Problem, it was not a sad life. We were surrounded by babies, both human and animal. How could we not, being shepherd-folk? And when Abram grew old and was elected to be Chief of the Shepherd’s Guild, we deemed it an honor, and a testimonial to his always being honest in his business dealings—which I was largely responsible for, being his Chief Bookkeeper—for, truth to tell, he was a man of the fields, preferring rather to wander abroad more than count his sheep and goats, or do the buying and selling. And why was that?
Late at night, even early in our marriage, when I was still in awe of this big, rugged, hairy giant who had taken me to wife, we would lie together in our desert tent—for no self-respecting shepherd would ever build a stucco house in town, with a front-gate and a parapet—and giggle together as newlyweds will. And, as the night went on, we would hold hands and wander together, through the desert wilderness he loved so much. He would show me Orion and the Great Bear, as well as Cassiopeia, Queen of Heaven, the noble woman who is enthroned on high. But he would also tell me about the Invisible God, who spoke with him, with Abram, alone.
“Does He—this god of yours—speak with you more clearly after you have drunk wine?” I asked, naively.
“I am no drunkard,” said Abram, sternly, “and you, my dear little girl-bride, my Sarai, should not doubt the word of your husband. I will never lie to you.”
“What if another man, with a mighty sword, and, perhaps an army, perhaps a king or pharaoh, comes to threaten your life, unless you surrender me for his harem?” I teased him, “Will your Invisible God come, and rescue you, and poor little me, then? Or will you sacrifice me instead, and give me to this swordsman?”
“Why, I—I—“ sputtered Abram, and I would run off, laughing, leaving him deep in thought. He would chase me, grab my wrists, and fling me gently down onto a copse of soft grass. I would laugh, and laugh. He would mutter into his beard, but smile, as well. He loved me so! And we were younger, then….
And the years passed…..until That Night. Abram had, only recently, announced to both Lote, his nephew, and to Eliezer, our Chief Steward, that he was going to retire, and that he was turning over the day-to-day operations of the Shepherding Business to them. He had been speaking more and more to his Invisible God, whom he persisted in calling “Adonoi,” or “Lord,” and claimed that his God was answering him. He said that God had major instructions in the offing, which would affect all of us.
The Day came: Abram came into the house, after a three-day ordeal in the wilderness. This was nothing unusual; he had often undertaken these occasions in the past, and I had grown used to them. After all, the business, the Shepherd’s Guild, our many servants and their worries—a Clan-Chieftain suffers pressures, and this retreat idea seemed to work for him, as a means of escape and relaxation. But this time was different: previously, he had always packed some provisions, a change of clothing, some scrolls or soft clay tablets on which to record his thoughts or directives which Adonoi might “tell” him—thoughts no one else was privy to.
But this time was different. Without stopping to greet any of the servants working in the dooryard or the gardens, without patting any of the household pets or cattle on the head, Abram rushed into the house, staring, his eyes rolling in his head, his beard and long hair all askew, and blowing in the wind—had I not told him to see Yaron, the Village Barber and Bleeder, to get a haircut and beard trim, some two weeks before?
“Pack, Sarai, pack,” he shouted at me, while I knelt, cooking my famous vegetable soup over the roaring fire, seeming to have difficulty getting the words out, “Adonoi—the Lord my God—the Invisible One—‘Get thee out,’ He told me, ‘Get thee out, of thy native land, and thy father’s house, and go to—go to—“
He collapsed onto a prayer rug, breathing heavily. I was alarmed: I handed the soup spoon to my chief maid, Tova, and knelt alongside him. His eyes were closed; he was moaning, as if sick.
“Abram! Abram!” I cried, patting his cheeks, “Tova! Eliezer! Go get the Wise Woman, the Village Healer. I saw her at the Town Well, not a half-turn-of-the-sun-chariot, earlier. And Shoshana, fetch me a damp cloth. He is burning up. Abram! Do you have a fever, My Love? Abram! Tell me what ails you—where does it hurt?”
“Let us get him to bed, Mistress,” came the low, strong voice of faithful Eliezer behind me.
“And get some of my herbal tea into him, aye, and quickly,” added Tova, “for Master is not so young as he fancies himself, and the poisonous night-air of the desert has caused him a fever, surely.”
Abram opened his eyes: “Am I not the Master in mine own house?” he whispered fiercely, “I bid you all—pack! Pack your—that is, my—goods and chattels! We must leave for—for—the Land, the good and pure and fruitful land, which my God will show—will show us!”
Luckily, Eliezer was able to send the new young boy, Shamash, to fetch the Wise Woman, and she got a sleeping potion into Abram, telling him it was the Command of the One True God, Adonoi. While he snored, she told me that it will keep him quiet for about eight hours. That will give Eliezer and me time to prepare the household. How am I to pack the possessions of thirty years of marriage? O Invisible God, O Adonoi, if that is what You call Yourself, what plans do You have for me, Your humble Sarai, and Your headstrong servant, Abram?
Perhaps I can humor my little Abram—we will travel for but one week, and be able to fool him into returning to Ur-of-the-Chaldees, when he gets over this little fit of madness—I do hope and pray so….